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#AuthorFail 11: Roxane Gay

Welcome, fellow duds, also-rans, has-beens, and cast-offs.

I had followed Roxane Gay’s intriguing online posts over the recent years, and somehow stumbled upon the fact that she teaches at Eastern Illinois University. Delighted by this relative proximity to my Chicago-area enclave of Lake Forest College, I invited her to join a panel on publishing (given her work with PANK) and to give a reading will fellow Illinois writer William Gillespie (Spineless Books).

Their performances in early 2011 were anything but failures–both inspiring and strange and suggestive and absurd.  Anyone who has encountered Roxane, I imagine, has had a similar experience.

And so, it seemed appropriate to ask her, here, in the most unsuccessful corner of the internet, to discourse on the failure, the complete failure, that stands in such stark contrast to the Roxane I have seen mesmerize an audience the way a flickering candle might entrance a small child.

I have always liked the idea of thematic collections. For my MA thesis, my original idea was to create a collection of stories about motion titled (E)Motion. I was young and felt terribly clever. All the stories would be about people living on the road or dealing with unstable situations, always moving toward things or away from things. I planned to write about Mormon missionaries, truck drivers, flight attendants, traveling strippers, and migrant workers, which I hoped would give way to some kind of eloquent statement about displacement, movement and emotion. Alas, that didn’t work out so well. I spent more time thinking about the thematic approach than the stories themselves so I ended up doing something quite different–though I did end up writing a couple of road stories. At the time, I was so proud of my (E)Motion title, but I am pretty mortified by it now.

Years passed. I wrote all kinds of things but never thought again about collected work because the first experiment had so unfortunately flamed out.

I read Joshua Ferris’s And Then We Came to the End and loved the sophisticated way he used the collective point of view to tell a story about people with shared-but-separate lives. I had written a short story from that collective point of view called “Boys in Drag,” and it was fun to write from that POV, to imagine a group of people who could be understood as a whole instead of as individuals. I thought it would be cool to create a book of stories, all told collectively. I often write the title followed by the story or book, so I wanted to call this project What We Do When We Are Together. That was the first problem. I loved the title but all the stories I was writing were told in the third person collective instead of the first person collective. The title was going to create a strange disconnect.

However, the title, What They Do When They Are Together, didn’t grab me as much. I decided I would fix the problem when I was done writing the stories. I pushed ahead, undeterred. That was my second mistake.

I wrote stories like Girls at the Bar, Men at Home, Women at Work, The Video Hos on Set, Telephone Sex Girls, and so on. Each of the stories is 1,000 words or less. I tried to play on some of the stereotypes implied by each title by both telling the stories like you might expect them to be told, while also including strange, unexpected details. As individual pieces, most of the stories work, but as a whole, the pieces just don’t function in conversation. I thought about changing all the pieces from third person to first person collective, but that felt like a whole lot of work–which I don’t mind, but I was also working on other projects at the time. Too many of the pieces felt more like inside jokes with myself than stories an audience would want to read.

That project is currently stalled, and in this case, “stalled” is the denial-informed word for abject failure. The #AuthorFail of this story is that I am completely unable to explicitly create a thematic collection.


Roxane Gay lives and writes in the midwest.

Last week’s #AuthorFail 10: Laura Goldstein

Next week’s FINAL #AuthorFail 12: Stephanie Strickland

Submit to this space. Tis’ soon to be over, sadly.

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